Duke’s young defensive backs hungry for more
The youth movement that swept across Duke’s defensive secondary during a school-record season in 2013 will continue.
When the Blue Devils open the season against Elon on Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN3.com) at Wallace Wade Stadium, sophomores Breon Borders and Bryon Fields will start at the cornerback positions.
That’s no surprise given their strong freshman seasons in 2013 as reserves behind starters Ross Cockrell and Garret Patterson, both seniors.
As Duke went 10-4 and won the ACC Coastal Division championship, Borders intercepted four passes and had eight pass breakups. Fields had a sack and six pass breakups.
They started preseason camp this month as the starters at cornerback and did nothing to deter Duke’s coaches from keeping them there.
“Bryon and Breon have benefitted so much from last year,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “You don’t look at them and see them as sophomores at all. They have a lot of snaps under their belt.”
After that experience of playing true freshmen as key reserves worked out so well, the Blue Devils are giving it a go again. The depth chart shows true freshmen Zach Muniz and Alonzo Saxton as the No. 2 cornerbacks.
Redshirt freshmen Evrett Edwards and Phillip Carter are backups at safety.
Cutcliffe said chances are good for similarly strong results.
“I think it’s very similar,” Cutcliffe said. “You are going to see Alonzo and Zach playing at the corners. They’ve had great camps. They are going to have their times. They’re freshmen.”
The four young cornerbacks are so good, Cutcliffe said, a player he considers a superior cornerback is instead playing safety for the Blue Devils.
“I think DeVon Edwards may be one of the best corners in the country at times,” Cutcliffe said. “DeVon Edwards is so gifted physically that he can do just about anything out there.”
Edwards burst on the scene as a redshirt freshman last season as the author of memorable explosive plays. Against N.C. State on Nov. 9, Edwards returned two interceptions for touchdowns (covering 25 and 45 yards) and also brought a kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown as the Blue Devils won 38-20.
In the regular-season finale at North Carolina on Nov. 30, Edwards returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown
Edwards started seven of Duke’s 14 games and returns this season as a starting safety.
Deondre Singleton, a sophomore like Borders and Fields, is also a returning starter at safety.
Last season, Singleton had 63 tackles, an interception, two caused fumbles and four pass breakups while playing in 12 games with nine starts as a true freshman.
Singleton said the group, while young, has formed a bond they believe will lead to successful play this season.
“Last year, we came in as freshmen and didn’t know each other too well,” Singleton said. “But we spent a lot of time together outside of football and I think as time went on last year we spent more and more time together and we had that bond. When we’re out and about on campus, you are not going to be walking by yourself. You are going to be walking with someone from the secondary. I just think that’s made us stronger as a secondary unit.”
There is one veteran of the group if you call a guy beginning his third season at Duke a veteran.
Jeremy Cash transferred to Duke from Ohio State in 2012 but sat out that season, limited only to practices, per NCAA transfer rules. Last season, as a redshirt sophomore in his first year as player for the Blue Devils, Cash was an all-ACC performer with 121 tackles, four interceptions, four pass breakups, two fumbles caused and two fumble recoveries.
Among a young, athletic group that calls itself “cheetahs” and a “coalition” (which is a group of cheetahs), Cash is the elder statesman.
“He’s a great leader,” Singleton said. “He’s out there day by day bringing energy, working hard and showing us how to do it.”
The youngsters showed they could do things well last season. They hope to do more this season, with a few more young players among their group.